When UAE-based hotel operator Rotana tapped 25-year hospitality industry veteran Mustafa Ainen to lead the operations and expansion of its lifestyle brand Centro by Rotana in Saudi Arabia, he jumped at the chance to serve as cluster general manager and handle the openings for both Centro Shaheen Jeddah and Centro Waha Riyadh.
Ainen, who first joined Rotana in 1995 and was part of the group’s first property in Dubai, recalls that when the Centro brand was first launched in 2006, he witnessed its tremendous potential even in those early years.
“The thing is, when Centro was envisioned by the president of Rotana back in 2006, it was conceived basically as an affordable, lifestyle hotel brand,” he says, adding: “So when we opened the first hotel in the UAE back in 2012, we could already see the success of the brand from that very first property. It was a game changer for the mid-market hospitality industry in the region. It helped to challenge the crowded luxury hotel sector, starting in the UAE and then moving on to the Kingdom as well.”
Ainen is highly aware that since those early days, several mid-scale operators have since entered the market, with large international hotel groups bringing in mid-market and budget brands or other regional hotel companies developing proprietary brands, but he firmly believes that Rotana possesses its own defining factors.
“I have seen many mid-scale brands in the UAE and in the Kingdom but the Centro brand comes with a modern, chic, affordable lifestyle. We have very good F&B offerings; we are attractive for the young and on-the-go executives who stay with us for two or three nights, as well as couples who stay for the weekend,” Ainen says. “We give them all that they need but at an affordable rate, especially in comparison to rates they have to pay at a five-star hotel.”
He continues: “What sets us apart from the competition? You have to look at Rotana being a home-grown brand 25 years ago. We have built a deep understanding of the local market, especially in hospitality, in delivering authentic experiences and specialised service. The people that we hired from the last 25 years, a lot of them are also home-grown and have grown with us. And we are still growing our people.”
And speaking of people, local talent retention and development is one of Ainen’s passion points as he is particularly keen on growing his Saudi workforce.
“The Saudi young people represent around 35% of my workforce [in the hotel]. That local ratio is not seen in any other GCC country,” he says, going on to enthuse: “I’m so excited to be working with them and I always tell my HR people, ‘I want more Saudis in the team’.”
As part of his local recruitment efforts, Ainen makes it his mission to conduct what he calls an ‘open day’, wherein he visits local schools and tourism colleges to showcase his hotels and issue invitations to students to come and see what a hotelier’s life is like. So far, his efforts are paying off handsomely.
“There are 53 young Saudis boys and girls working in this hotel [Centro Shaheen Jeddah]. And I’m very, very proud of them. Of course, there is a long way to go in handling all the responsibilities that come with managing a hotel,” Ainen says. “But we are helping along the way. Training and development is our responsibility.And we take it very seriously.”
Ainen points out that his teams in both of Centro’s operating hotels in Saudi Arabia are responsible for the brand’s success in the Kingdom.
“This hotel in Jeddah [Centro Shaheen] opened only a year ago and out of 162 hotels in Jeddah, it is already ranked on TripAdvisor as the second best hotel in the city. For our first year of operation, we are already doing better than our comp set,” he says proudly. “In terms of KPIs, we are doing very well, running an average occupancy of 70%.”
He is likewise enthused about the prospects for Centro Waha Riyadh.
“Centro Waha is very new; it just opened on the 11th [of October 2017] so it has only been two weeks, but we’re already very excited,” he shares, adding: “Just looking at the figures, it is running very well, with occupancy in the high 50s. Any hotel, especially a corporate hotel, would require a period of time to earn a reputation among business travellers but we are very happy with its performance.”
Ainen is also quick to credit the owners and investors who have stood behind Rotana for Centro’s emergence and rise.
“Our owners and investors are part of the reason for Centro’s success. They know the long history of Rotana. In 25 years, we managed to open, operate and develop over 50 hotels. In the next few years, until 2020/2021, we’re going to double this number. They can definitely see that Rotana is their best option as a partner,” he says.
As for projections for the Centro by Rotana brand in Saudi Arabia, the future is definitely looking rosy. From the opening of Centro Shaheen Jeddah in 2016 to Centro Waha Riyadh this year, the year of 2018 is looking exceptionally active with three Centro openings in the Kingdom: Centro Olaya Riyadh and Centro Corniche Al Khobar, both due to come online by Q1, and Centro Salamah Jeddah to follow by Q2.
According to Ainen, the flurry in Centro’s pipeline is indicative of an overall shift in the Kingdom’s hospitality sector.
“I think what has been realised is that there is a huge untapped potential for mid-range and budget accommodation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he says, while adding: “The Kingdom is opening its doors to tourism. They want to encourage religious tourism, medical tourism, and of course, business travellers; they will always be there. The emergence of mid-range and lower-priced accommodation has become one of the hottest trends within the travel sector to get the essential diversity in the country.”
Ainen is of the opinion that international tourism is not that critical in order for the mid-market hotel sector to thrive; the youthful profile of Saudi Arabian travellers and the sheer size of the local travel market can sustain current growth.
“There is a lot of demand being driven by the local market. Don’t forget – this [Saudi Arabia] is a large country with 50 million people and it is the largest Arab country by land,” he asserts.
“Budget hotels and mid-range hotels are managing to get a slice of this travel business because of the young and remember, 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30 so it’s a very young, very youthful society,” Ainen explains. “A lot of them are very entrepreneurial. They want to start businesses and they need to travel to do this and they’re finding that mid-range hotels are the best solution for them. And this is where we at Centro by Rotana come in”